I wrote a rather in-depth post about my disappointment with accessibility on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last Monday, and I’ll get to both a summary of that and a followup about how ADA accommodations did get better later in the week. But first I want to talk about my disappointment with the use of people with disabilities as human stage dressing on the second night of the convention.
I was not present at the Wells Fargo Center for Tuesday night of the DNC. Monday had been a physically and emotionally draining day, and my body needed some serious recovery time. It worked out well that I had already scheduled my “night off” to be Tuesday when deciding with the rest of the MOMocrats DNC team who would have which media credentials at any given point in time. We hadn’t gotten back to our Airbnb room until about 2:00 am, and despite the difficulty I’d had falling asleep (a combination of a headache, serious hip pain, and just being in an unfamiliar place) I ended up sleeping like the dead, not waking up until after 1:00 pm when my fellow MOMocrats were getting ready to leave for lunch before heading to the convention center. They were kind enough to bring me back an egg sandwich before they left the room for the night. (HUGE thanks to Anoosh Jojorian, Jennifer Miller-Smith, and Michael Flanagan for changing some of their own plans to ensure I was taken care of.) I was hunkered down in bed, feet propped up, with a bottle of Diet Pepsi sitting on a coaster on the nightstand beside me, when the official DNC livestream started running at 4:00 pm.
The first thing I noticed was that there was a large group of people just sitting/standing at the front of the stage when the broadcast began. Were they stagehands? Random Democrats milling about on the stage before gavel in at 4:30 pm? No…several of the people on the stage were in wheelchairs, and they were evenly distributed on each side of the podium.
As it turned out, July 26 was the 26th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. So to contrast themselves with the GOP candidate who’d infuriated the disabled community by mocking a reporter’s disability seemingly forever ago, the Democrats decided to show the country how much they care about people with disabilities.
Except that they never introduced the people on either side of the stage. Sure, they introduced paraplegic Paralympian Mallory Weggemann as she led the convention hall in the Pledge of Allegiance, and they introduced Timmy Kelly (a blind man with a killer voice) as he led the convention hall in the singing of the National Anthem, but no one ever acknowledged the other disabled people on the stage.
Former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, who wrote and helped pass the ADA, made some remarks. Some of his words rang hollow with me, though. I’m sure he meant well, but there was still so much latent ableism:
‘Only one person seeking the presidency understands the disability community’s phrase, “nothing about us without us.” As president, Hillary Clinton will bring people with disabilities to the table for a more inclusive America.
‘I learned sign language from my brother, Frank, who was deaf. I want to teach you a beautiful sign now. Take your hands, intertwine the fingers, and move them in a circle. This is the sign for “America!”‘
“Nothing about us without us” is a really big deal for those of us with disabilities. It’s why so many autistic people like me despise Autism Speaks. But when you line up disabled people on a stage for “optics,” never stopping to take two minutes to say, “I’d like to introduce, from left to right, Elena who was born with Down Syndrome, Michael who lost his legs fighting in Afghanistan, Omar who was born with cerebral palsy…” It’s. Just. Gross. They were used as props, which totally goes against the message about inclusivity. And while the DNC photostream on Flickr has pictures from most of the other caucuses and council meetings that took place at the Pennsylvania Convention Center before gavel in at the Wells Fargo Center each day, there is not a single photo from the Disability Council meetings that occurred on Monday and Wednesday. (Please correct me if I happened to miss a page where said photos exist.)
If you don’t understand the problem with this, try to imagine lining the stage with black people, not introducing any of them by name, and having a white Congressman who helped pass some sort of civil rights legislation talk about his Black Friend before ending his speech with his fist in the air. And then, when the “black portion of the agenda” was over with, have all of the nameless black people file off the stage silently.
Do you get it now?
I don’t even know if all of the human props were people with disabilities or if some of them were caregivers for other people on the stage. Caregivers deserve credit for everything they do, too, but it would have been of immense importance to someone like me for some sort of public acknowledgement of people with invisible illnesses. The people who “don’t look sick.”
Of course, I was visibly disabled the night beforehand. My cane was barely holding me up by the end of the night, and I had a bit of a duck walk. I didn’t even care how it looked. I was in too much pain to care.
My mission on Monday had been to evaluate the DNC’s claims of being the “most accessible convention ever.” I had a list of things I was looking for, per their own printed literature. There was supposed to be an ADA welcome desk to help people with disabilities connect with appropriate accommodations. There was supposed to be a Quiet Room – handicap accessible! – for attendees who were overstimulated and needed a break. As an autistic woman, this seemed like an important thing for me to locate before I needed it. But that Monday, it did not exist. There were signs pointing to where it was supposed to be, but it hadn’t yet been set up, and most volunteers – even those important enough to rate their own earpieces for communication – looked at me like I had three heads when I asked about it. One even thought I was asking for the “choir room.” So there was no place for me to decompress, which is something I would have benefited from later in the evening. There was also no lactation room for breastfeeding mothers. There was no ADA welcome desk located anywhere in my search of the first and second levels of the arena. And I’d already had to walk at least half a mile (maybe more?) in 100 degree heat from where the media shuttle dropped us off outside the secure perimeter. Me and my cane and my chronic fatigue syndrome and heat intolerance. I would find out later that night that delegates in wheelchairs were unable to get to their shuttles that would take them to the arena, and that ramps weren’t even set up in the arena once they got there…so convention volunteers had to physically carry people in wheelchairs up and down stairs. That’s hard on the volunteers and humiliating for the people in the wheelchairs. There were a lot of helpful individuals at the convention on Monday, but it was a logistical nightmare for an event that had advertised accommodations that hadn’t yet materialized.
Though no consolation for what anyone had to go through on Monday night, the DNC did finally get some of its act together later in the week. I never saw the mythical Quiet Room with my own eyes, but fellow MOMocrat Anoosh snapped a picture of it for me while I was saving our seat in the hall on Wednesday night. (Seat saving was a big deal on Wednesday because Vice President Biden and President Obama were speaking. If there was a seat without a butt in it, it didn’t last very long that way.)
My arrival at Wells Fargo Center was far better than it had been on Monday, too. I suppose that, despite my inquiries about media logistics in the weeks leading up to convention, accessibility for members of the media wasn’t something they thought to address. On Wednesday, the main security perimeter entrance had an ADA welcome tent with golf carts coming and going between the security checkpoint and the arena entrance. (Again, this would have been a half-mile walk or more.) I didn’t even have to “wait my turn” for a ride to the arena, as the available golf cart had room for a single rider, and everyone else in front of me was traveling with other people. Having had to walk to and from the subway station prior to the security checkpoint, the golf cart ride saved me precious energy and prevented further pain, as I was leaning heavily on my cane by this point in time. People kindly pointed me in the direction of the escalator when everyone else was getting directed to the stairs. Two young black women apologized for not offering me one of the chairs they were sitting in at the cell phone charging station once they noticed my cane when I sat in a vacated chair, but I told them not to worry about it because I’d been sitting too long beforehand.
The biggest disability-related problem I had on Wednesday – return trip after gavel out notwithstanding – was that I wasn’t able to get a seat in the front row of the balcony like I had on Monday, so people were constantly knocking over my cane. That and, despite my cane next to me, I’d get irritated looks from people trying to get past me in the row of seats when I couldn’t stand up to let them pass. I pivoted my legs as far into the aisle as I could; I don’t think any of them understood how big of a deal it was for me to manipulate my legs even that much over and over again throughout the evening. That’s a societal thing though, able-bodied people getting irritated at the inconveniences they face because of disabled people. I used to get the same way. But since my CFS progression kicked into high gear a few years back, I can honestly say – trust me, your irritation over having to step over me is literally nothing compared to the endless frustration of having a body that doesn’t work the way it should. In my case, the way it used to. (And who wears high heels to a place with concrete steps and stadium seating, anyways?)
This turned into more of a rant than I had intended.
But since this is about more than just me, let me also share a comment from South Carolina delegate Michele Horne, who had this so say when I wondering if maybe delegates had better accommodations than the rest of us (emphasis mine):
Ha! No, it was NOT any better for us delegates. At all. I ended up on crutches. I was one of the “lucky” few states whose party leadership decided we were 12 and needed assigned seating. The first day (Tuesday) I was on crutches, my seat was the dead center of the row. One of my fellow delegates ran ahead of me and said, “Uh, no.” Our ED sighed and moved me to the front row. The next day, middle of the row. The next, same thing. And this was “my” people. I left to go to the First Aid station to get ice for my ankle-turns out the First Aid station was apparently in South Jersey. When I returned, I was not allowed back to my seat because the Fire Marshall had closed the floor. (Apparently, this is one of the tasks the 800+ Sanders volunteers who were de-credentialed and sent home could have done for me so I didn’t lose my seat, and they would he been much quicker). So, I headed upstairs. Finally pitched a fit and got a seat in a disabled “closet.” I had a lovely view of a Secret Service agent’s tush. Thursday, I left to go buy some ibuprofen. When I got back, the security perimeter had been expanded, and I promise you, I walked at least three miles (yes, on crutches) and paid for an uber and a rickshaw because my uber couldn’t get close enough, I had him drop me off one subway station up, turns out it was closed, it was an .8 mile walk to the WF parking lot, then I had to get the rickshaw to go around the perimeter of the parking lot, then walk across it, then to another gate to be re-screened. Oh, and it had started raining. Turns out, it was easier to get a ride from the FOX NEWS cart than the DNC. They confiscated one of our blind delegate’s cane. Another posted pictures of her arm where security grabbed her arm (I guess she wasn’t moving fast enough and didn’t look disabled enough). We had several who just gave up and quit going. It’s pretty hard for me to figure out what they did right, to be honest.
Even elected delegates with disabilities were treated poorly.
So despite what you saw on the stage on TV, all of those smiling disabled people whose names we’ll never know, the DNC didn’t live up to its own hype. (This is true on so many levels, but we’re just talking about disabilities in this post.)
And for the record, I left a day early. I could handle the fourth day of convention – mentally or physically – and I was home in my own bed by the time Hillary Clinton gave her acceptance speech. I didn’t watch it. I was soaking in a hot Epsom salt bath instead.